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'I thought long and hard about taking role; I didn't wish to offend anyone... I also wanted to get beyond the image, into his humanity'

Paul Whitington talks to character actor Timothy Spall about the many challenges of portraying the firebrand Rev Ian Paisley in his new movie

As the North faces into yet another uncertain and potentially disastrous election, one could be forgiven for missing the good old days of the 'Chuckle Brothers', whose partnership represented possibly the most influential and surely the most unlikely double act in Irish political history.

But now a new movie is resurrecting the extraordinary relationship between Martin McGuinness and the Rev Ian Paisley.

The two men surprised Ireland, Britain and the world in 2007 by establishing a working relationship that paved the way for power-sharing, political stability and peace. And Nick Hamm's drama The Journey imagines how that first tentative understanding might have come about. The film is set around the pivotal St Andrews talks, and writer Colin Bateman has concocted an imaginary scenario that sees the two men being forced to share a limousine to Edinburgh Airport.

Colm Meaney is well cast as McGuinness, who does his best to strike up a conversation with the old warhorse Paisley but initially gets nowhere. Eventually, however, shared geographical roots and the distinctive Ulster sense of humour help break the ice as common ground is tentatively found.

It's all a bit theatrical, to be honest, but there's nothing half-hearted about Spall's portrayal of the legendary firebrand: hair slicked back and front teeth to the fore, he manfully handles that unforgettable mid-Ulster accent and gives us a convincing portrayal of an older and wiser Paisley who's beginning to think beyond the box of intransigent unionism and imagine a different kind of future for his troubled corner of the world.

Did being asked to play such a complex and controversial figure give Spall pause for thought?

"It certainly did," he says. "I felt surprised that the part had come my way in the first place to be honest, and then, obviously, I was hoping it wasn't going to offend anybody. So it was a big deal, and I had to think about it long and hard, and I finally decided it was something I was going to take on because of the power of its positive message about conflict resolution."

The hardest thing to begin with, he says, was getting beyond the popular image of Paisley, how he spoke and sometimes carried on. "Back in the 1970s, everyone who did a bit of impersonating could do either Frank Spencer or Ian Paisley. He was this go-to public personality, so there was that almost clichéd view of a character that you had to get through," he says.

"I concentrated on the fact that in this film it's him in his later years, where he's more reflective than he was, less dogmatic, so I looked at a lot of footage of that, interviews where he was less confrontational, more conciliatory. And I watched him a lot giving his final speech to the English Parliament, which was a very remarkable piece of oratory, but very different from that tub-thumping, hectoring quality of old.

"I listened to loads of his sermons, too, which were incredible no matter what side of the fence you're on - it's pure performance, it's like something from the 18th century. And you have to come to the conclusion that it was genuine, it grew out of this power of faith that he had. But in the end, whatever person you're playing, it's interesting to me to try and get beyond the politics and the religion and all that, and into the humanity."

The accent, he says, was something he tried hard not to get lost in.

"I mean, obviously, you've got to pay attention to what somebody spoke like, what they look like and so on," he says. "But really, it's the interior and not the exterior that you want to get at." And that kind of deep and detailed characterisation is something Spall has proved exceptionally good at over the years.

The term 'character actor' is thrown around with abandon, but if it applies to anyone, it's him. Since rising to prominence in the 1980s in low-budget British films like Quadrophenia and TV shows like Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, Spall has matured into one of the finest and most versatile actors of his generation. He's played the Death Eater Peter Pettigrew in six Harry Potter movies, Winston Churchill in The King's Speech, Holocaust debunker David Irving in Denial, Britain's last hangman in Pierrepoint, and enjoyed a long and fruitful working relationship with Mike Leigh, most recently in the magnificent biopic Mr Turner.

He moves between characters with astonishing ease, but his talent is founded on lots of hard work, and nothing was handed to Spall on a plate. Born in Battersea, south London, in 1957, he was raised on a council estate and vividly recalls the specific moment when he realised that acting might be his calling.

"I'd just dropped my nan off," he remembers. "We lived on the same estate and I used to walk her home, and I saw this old boy coming out of a tower block lift, he was walking along in this very distinctive way. I just started to walk like him, and I had a feeling that walking like him actually gave me a sense of being him, rather than just impersonating him. It was a sort of epiphany in a way, because I started to do it without even knowing I was doing it, and there was no one watching me, I was all on my own. That feeling I got is always what I try and achieve with a character - it's this connection that I make with people, whether they're pretentious, loathsome or even monstrous, in a sense you have to park all that and see it from their point of view."

Spall trained at RADA and learned the ropes as a jobbing member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. "I started in the theatre, and I loved it. But over time I lost my love of it, and my desire to do it," he says. Last year he returned to the West End stage for the first time in many years in a revival of Harold Pinter's The Caretaker.

"It was a play that I love, but it was difficult, you know, it was hard work," he says. "I don't know whether I enjoyed it or not to be honest, but in the end I came to the conclusion that actually it doesn't matter what I think, if you agree to do something, you do it, and as much as you can you do it for the audience. They've paid their money, they get in there, it's their night out, not yours, so you say to yourself, I haven't come here to enjoy myself I've come here to do this!"

He's fiercely critical of his own work, and is usually mildly horrified when confronted by his image on-screen. "I never watch playback during a shoot," he tells me. "I always try and see it absolutely from the character's point of view and play it from within, so when I watch it I go, oh no, that's not Ian Paisley, that's me! I don't like looking at myself."

Is there a performance he's proudest of? "I went to a film festival where they did this tribute thing," he explains, sounding vaguely mortified. "They showed six of my movies and I went on and talked about them afterwards. I watched some of them, and for the most part I was just shocked at how much younger I looked. But yeah, I think Pierrepoint works."

Spall gave a remarkably insightful performance in Adrian Shergold's 2005 biopic of Albert Pierrepoint, the British hangman who's estimated to have executed over 400 people during his life, but felt he was just doing a job. "It's an interesting story and he was an interesting man, and I watched a bit of that and I think I'm very happy with that as a piece of work. But again, I can now look at it as if it was somebody else, you know. It takes a few years."

Spall's relentless perfectionism may be the key to his consistent excellence, but he also has a unique talent for finding humanity in even the darkest subjects.

"I always say, well whatever we are, whatever people are, however charming or fantastic or despicable they are, they were a babe in arms, you know. I always think that."

"It's a bit like when you see a poor wretch who's having a terrible time living on the street - my wife and I would always say my goodness, that's someone's baby. So I think it's a kind of empathy, and your job is to find out as much as you can about your character, and if you don't know, you have to use your empathy to invent a scenario."

  • The Journey opens in cinemas on Friday, May 5

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